Kia released its first electric vehicle late last year in California, a new take on its iconic Soul compact. This year, the Kia Soul EV is expanding its reach to Georgia, Hawaii, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. With any luck, maybe Kia will follow GM’s lead and enter the Maryland market. But with announcements for the next generation of the plug-in hybrid Volt and a 200-mile battery-electric Bolt from its competitors on the horizon, not to mention today’s low gas prices, is there a reason why Kia is so bullish now?
What they’ve learned
It’s clear that four years after the Nissan Leaf first hit the streets in the United States that Kia has learned a few things from some of those early adopters. Most obviously, the Kia Soul EV stresses RANGE, which is on the top of just about everyone’s mind when it comes to electric vehicles. With the largest battery range in its class (the only EVs currently in production with a larger range are manufactured by Tesla), Kia’s Soul EV is estimated to get 93 miles on a single charge—but based on your driving habits, this could easily be an underestimate, as I’ll discuss in a bit. And at more than 90 miles, that would cover the weekday driving distance of 75-80% of American drivers.
The interior of the Soul EV also helps ease any “range anxiety” those new to EVs may experience. In addition to programming a map of charging stations into its EV, it builds EV routing into the navigational experience to warn you if you will have to recharge along a programmed route. It also gives you feedback on what is using the electricity, such as the stereo blasting or the climate control set to frigid, which just from a tech-geek perspective is pretty cool. And once you get to your destination, it can also help you estimate just how long it will take to “fill up” with a standard house outlet (120V) or a common level 2 home or public charger (240V). It also has a CHAdeMO charge port for much faster charging at DC fast charge stations around the country.
Unlike the Nissan Leaf or Tesla Model S, the Soul EV was not built from the ground up just to be an EV—it shares the platform with a conventional internal combustion engine-powered model. But unlike some of its “compliance vehicle” cousins like the Honda Fit EV or Fiat 500e, the redesigned Soul was built with an electric powertrain in mind, so there are no compromises in cargo space or handling, despite the 620-pound battery.
What I’ve learned
One thing that surprises me every time I drive an EV is just how quiet they are—there’s almost no feedback whatsoever that the vehicle is ready to go, which can be eerie. But, it is also thrilling—no revving, no shifting, no nothin’…just step on the pedal and you can get that instant torque common to an electric motor.
Apart from the instantaneous “Go” feel, I really appreciate regenerative braking. As a technology geek, I really appreciate the sensibility of the idea behind it—we lose so much energy to heat when we use brake pads that it just makes sense to me to try to capture that in some way. It takes some adjustment, since it behaves very differently from a conventional vehicle and actually slows down the vehicle as soon as you let off the gas pedal (no coasting), but I find it incredibly fun.
One thing I really like that Kia has done is replace the “low gear” (L) common to an automatic with a “braking” (B) mode. This B mode is aimed at people like me—the standard “D” drive “gear” feels closer to a conventional vehicle, with only very mild regenerative braking. When you shift the vehicle into “B”, though, the car behaves almost like a go-cart, with near one-pedal driving, similar to my experience in the Tesla Model S. This really helps save energy, and for me personally it gives a more direct connection to the driving experience.
In addition to the ability to alter how strong the regenerative braking is, Kia also offers its drivers two different acceleration modes, Normal and Eco. The Eco mode results in a more gentle acceleration rather than the foot-stomping excitement I tend to want from an EV, but it repays your kindness with improved range.
While I barely used the Eco mode, I used the “B” gear extensively in the city, and the results were astounding—over my 22.3 mile trip, I only used up 14 miles of “range”! While high-speed freeway driving will certainly eat into your expected range, driving around the city was like getting miles for free. Aggressively utilizing regenerative braking more than made up for my desire at every stoplight to scoot across the intersection as fast as possible.
While the future Tesla Model 3 or Chevy Bolt may up the ante on how far the average battery-electric vehicle can go, the current generation of EVs is doing just fine with vehicles like the Kia Soul EV. As someone who takes public transit everywhere, I’m not exactly in the market for a new vehicle, but a vehicle like the Soul EV would have been perfect for my morning commutes in San Diego—stop’n’go traffic is a breeze in an EV, and nothing is better than the peace and quiet of a silent and instantly responsive motor.
As vehicles like the Kia Soul EV help to expand the market beyond California and more folks are able to experience what it’s like to drive one, it’ll help us continue on a path of reduced oil use and cleaner transportation future…and still be a whole lot of fun.
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